Closure of This Ain't Hollywood 'shattering' for Hamilton's music community

Legendary venue gave up-and-coming local artists a stage where they could cut their teeth and gain the experience needed to become successful touring musicians.

Musicians and promoters hope someone else will step up to fill the hole left behind

The building that houses This Ain't Hollywood, an iconic live music venue in downtown Hamilton, has been sold with a closing date of August 4. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

"Let's stay apart today so we can be together tomorrow."

Those words are posted on the sign outside This Ain't Hollywood in downtown Hamilton.

They're meant as a message of encouragement during the COVID-19 pandemic that's postponed shows and left the venue shuttered and silent. But with news the building that houses the bar has been sold, it appears the reunion promised in the second half of that statement might look very different.

Some fear the same could be said of live music in Hamilton without the legendary location.

"In my opinion it's shattering to the music community in Hamilton to lose a venue like that," said Tim Potocic, co-owner of Sonic Unyon Records.

"For the size of the city we have such a limited amount of live venues that are independently run and have vibe and are cool and are tour stops for artists that are up and coming."

The loss means more than one less stage to play, he added.

This Ain't Hollywood and other spaces where 100-200 fans can crowd in for a show allow up-and-coming local artists to cut their teeth and gain the experience needed to become a successful touring musician.

"All the things you need to be a proper touring musician is learned in those places," explained Potocic. "You don't wake up one day and play Copps Coliseum."

The closure will be felt by musicians and music lovers alike, but those active in Hamilton's music scene say it's resilient and they're hopeful the end of This Ain't Hollywood will mean the beginning of something new.

After 11 years as a rock 'n' roll hub, the owners of the landmark venue decided it was time to do something different. In a post shared on social media Sunday, they thanked the celebrated past shows and thanked their patrons for support.

"Being in Hamilton had been a great thing for music, but on a business basis we're so close to Toronto a lot of times we're losing out on opportunities due to radius clauses and things like that," said co-owner Lou Molinaro.

"Live music is super exciting, but it was really becoming a niche market."

Over the last decade, hundreds of Hamilton musicians have played in this room. (Ovlix.com)

As much as he loved the business, Molinaro said trying to survive on just live music could be a struggle.

"Our stage was our prime rib."

The bar tried to expand its menu by welcoming all kinds of music, from hip hop and blues to rock and punk.

Over the years they worked hard to nurture local talent, said Molinaro, but business could be spotty and he was sometimes left feeling bad for bands that drew 120 one night and only a handful the next.

The amount of support from managers and labels also seems to be changing, he said, requiring promoters to pour much more effort into shows to make them successful.

"I don't mean to sound so accusative here, but I think the responsibility relies on the industry to give a s--t about live music and really [support] it rather than just leave it up to individuals to say 'It's your responsibility to host a show.'"

More than bricks and mortar

Brodie Schwendiman, owner of Casbah, knows that frustration firsthand.

He's grown and gained experience over the past 20 years, but things seem to be getting harder.

"It really challenges your faith and your passion for what you're doing when you feel like you're smarter about your business, but it's not getting any easier," he said.

Hamilton is an interesting city for music, said Schwendiman. On one hand its scene is small enough that everyone knows each other's names, but it's big enough that more resources are needed to draw in a large audience.

A woman walks past This Ain't Hollywood Tuesday. The bar has been shuttered for weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Schwendiman has seen the number of venues rise and fall. He's friends with the This Ain't Hollywood crew and is sad to see them close their doors, but said he has faith live music will endure.

"The music scene is always something that's driven by the artists and the fans and the people that operate the venues, not by the brick and mortar structures that house the shows."

A place that 'feels like home'

Hamilton singer-songwriter Terra Lightfoot has been through this painful song and dance before.

She recalls when the Pepper Jack Cafe closed and wondering then where people would be able to find a sense of community.

Then This Ain't Hollywood opened and helped fill that hole.

She's taken the stage there many times and has fond memories of catching Lori Yates's Good Girls Gone Bad show every year or performances by the Sadies, Teenage Head, B.A. Johnston and others.

She even gave a shout out to the venue in her song Slick Back Kid.

"Most of all, I'll miss the staff and the community they helped to create," she wrote in an email to CBC, describing Molinaro as the "definition of honesty and generosity."

"I'm hopeful that the people in Hamilton continue to seek out new places to see live music and that we all find a place to see live music that feels like home," she added.

Terra Lightfoot said she has fond memories of catching shows at This Ain't Hollywood and hopes Hamilton's musicians can find somewhere else that feels like home. (CBC Music)

Potocic is also close with Molinaro and said it's possible the closure could lead to something new for the city.

"It opens the door for maybe a young person that's been sitting in the wings that wants to get into the business and take a risk."

The closing date for the sale is Aug. 4. At this point, the bar's final date hasn't been determined.

Molinaro said he's not sure what the new owners have planned for the site at the corner of James Street North and Murray Street West, though there is talk of putting a restaurant of some kind in the bottom floor with apartments above.

"For us to be selfish and wish that it's another venue, I mean in a perfect world that would be great, but they're entitled to do whatever they want," he said.

As for the future of live music in the city? Molinaro doesn't seem worried, despite the decision to sell his club.

"Hamilton has always been a live music city. It's always been primarily recognized as a really strong market [that] has deep roots from many years ago and that will never go away."

A painted message outside the venue directs patrons to the correct door. It's unclear what will come of the building in the future. (Dan Taekema/CBC)